Natural State: A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing

Natural State: A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing

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by Steven Gilbar

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This is the first anthology of nature writing that celebrates California, the most geographically diverse state in the union. Readers‹be they naturalists or armchair explorers‹will find themselves transported to California's many wild places in the company of forty noted writers whose works span more than a century. Divided into sections on California's mountains,


This is the first anthology of nature writing that celebrates California, the most geographically diverse state in the union. Readers‹be they naturalists or armchair explorers‹will find themselves transported to California's many wild places in the company of forty noted writers whose works span more than a century. Divided into sections on California's mountains, hills and valleys, deserts, coast, and elements (earth, wind, and fire), the book contains essays, diary entries, and excerpts from larger works, including fiction. As a prelude to the collection, editor Steven Gilbar presents two California Indian creation myths, one a Cahto narrative and the other an A-juma-wi story as told by Darryl Babe Wilson. Familiar names appear in these pages‹John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, John McPhee, M.F.K. Fisher, Gretel Ehrlich‹but less familiar writers such as Daniel Duane, Margaret Millar, and John McKinney are also included. Among the gems in this treasure trove are Jack Kerouac on climbing Mt. Matterhorn, Barry Lopez on snow geese migration at Tule Lake, Edward Abbey on Death Valley, Henry Miller on Big Sur, and Joan Didion on the Santa Ana winds. Gary Snyder's inspiring Afterword reflects the spirit of environmentalism that runs throughout the book. Natural State also reveals the many changes to California's landscape that have occurred in geological time and in human terms. More than a book of "nature writing," this book is superb writing about nature.

Author Biography: Steven Gilbar lives in Santa Barbara and does not get to sp as much time in the wilderness as he would like. His previous anthologies include Tales of Santa Barbara (1994) and Red Tiles, Blue Skies (1996).

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This is a wonderfully diverse collection of essays, diary entries, and excerpts of larger works (including fiction) by 40 writers spanning over a century. Loosely grouped by geographical areas and by the various features encountered (e.g., mountains, deserts), the authors presented range from the likely suspects (e.g., John Muir, Wallace Stegner, John McPhee) to the less familiar and a few surprising choices (e.g., Jack Kerouac). Editor/compiler Gilbar (Tales of Santa Barbara, John Daniel & Co., 1994) introduces each piece by setting the context and includes a concise biography of the author. With a brief foreword by environmentalist David Brower and an afterword by nature writer/poet Gary Snyder, this should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Essential for regional, natural history, and nature writing collections and highly recommended for most public collections.Tim J. Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA

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Natural State

A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing

By Steven Gilbar


Copyright © 1998 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92033-0



Cabto Valley

The Creation

The creation myths of the Native American peoples of California have many elements in common. The following myth of the Cahto (sometimes spelled "Kato"), who inhabited Cahto and Long Valleys in Mendocino County and the upper drainage of the South Fork of the Eel River in Lake County, is a typical example. Collected in 1909 by the University of California ethnologist Pliny E. Goddard (1869–1928), it tells of the great deluge, after which Thunder, the original being, created the landscape, the animals, and humankind.

Every day it rained, every night it rained. All the people slept. The sky fell. The land was not. For a very great distance there was no land. The waters of the oceans came together. Animals of all kinds drowned. Where the water went there were no trees. There was no land.

People became. Seal, sea-lion, and grizzly built a dance-house. They looked for a place in vain. At Usal they built it, for there the ground was good. There are many sea-lions there. Whale became a human woman. That is why women are so fat. There were no grizzlies. There were no fish. Blue lizard was thrown into the water and became sucker. Bull-snake was thrown into the water and became black salmon. Salamander was thrown into the water and became hook-bill salmon. Grass-snake was thrown into the water and became steel-head salmon. Lizard was thrown into the water and became trout....

"What will grow in the water?" he [the creator] asked. Seaweeds grew in the water. Abalones and mussels grew in the water. Two kinds of kelp grew in the ocean. Many different kinds grew there....

"How will the water of the ocean behave? What will be in front of it?" he asked. "The water will rise up in ridges. It will settle back again. There will be sand. On top of the sand it will glisten," he said. "Old kelp will float ashore. Old whales will float ashore.

"People will eat fish, big fish," he said. "Sea-lions will come ashore. They will eat them. They will be good. Devil-fish, although they are ugly looking, will be good. The people will eat them. The fish in the ocean will be fat. They will be good.

"There will be many different kinds in the ocean. There will be water-panther. There will be stone-fish. He will catch people. Long-tooth-fish will kill sea-lion. He will feel around in the water.

"Sea-lion will have no feet. He will have a tail. His teeth will be large. There will be no trees in the ocean. The water will be powerful in the ocean," he said.

He placed redwoods and firs along the shore. At the tail of the earth, at the north, he made them grow. He placed land in walls along in front of the ocean. From the north he put down rocks here and there. Over there the ocean beats against them. Far to the south he did that. He stood up pines along the way. He placed yellow pines. Far away he placed them. He placed mountains along in front of the water. He did not stop putting them up, even way to the south.

Redwoods and various pines were growing. He looked back and saw them growing. The redwoods had become tall. He placed stones along. He made small creeks by dragging along his foot. "Wherever they flow this water will be good," he said. "They will drink this. Only the ocean they will not drink." That is why all drink, many different kinds of animals. "Because the water is good, because it is not salt, deer, elk, panther, and fishes will drink of it," he said. He caused trees to grow up along. When he looked behind himself he saw they had grown up. "Birds will drink, squirrels will drink," he said. "Many different kinds will drink. I am placing good water along the way."

Many redwoods grew up. He placed water along toward the south. He kicked out springs. "There will be springs,"' he said. "These will belong to the deer," he said of the deer-licks.

He took along a dog. "Drink this water," he told his dog. He, himself, drank of it....

Tanbark oaks he made to spring up along the way. Many kinds, redwoods, firs, and pines, he caused to grow. He placed water along.... To make valleys for the streams he placed the land on edge. The mountains were large. They had grown....

He threw salamanders and turtles into the creeks. "Eels will live in this stream," he said. "Fish will come into it. Hook-bill and black salmon will run up this creek. Last of all steelheads will swim in it. Crabs, small eels, and day-eels will come up.

"Grizzlies will live in large numbers on this mountain. On this mountain will be many deer. The people will eat them. Because they have no gall they may be eaten raw. Deer meat will be very sweet. Panthers will be numerous. There will be many jack-rabbits on this mountain," he said.

He did not like yellow-jackets. He nearly killed them. He made blue-flies and wasps.

His dog walked along with him. "There will be much water in this stream," he said. "This will be a small creek and the fish will run in it. The fish will be good. There will be many suckers and trout in this stream."

"There will be brush on this mountain," he said. He made manzanita and white-thorn grow there. "Here will be a valley. Here will be many deer. There will be many grizzlies at this place. Here a mountain will stand. Many rattlesnakes, bull-snakes, and water snakes will be in this place. Here will be good land. It shall be a valley.

"There will be many owls here, the barking-owl, the screech-owl, and the little owl. There shall be many blue jays, grouse, and quails. Here on this mountain will be many woodrats. Here shall be many varied robins. There shall be many woodcocks, yellow-hammers, and sap-suckers. Here will be herons and blackbirds. There will be many turtle-doves and pigeons. The kingfishers will catch fish. There will be many buzzards, and ravens. There will be many chicken-hawks. There will be many robins. On this high mountain there will be many deer," he said.

... The land had become good. The valleys had become broad. All kinds of trees and plants had sprung up. Springs had become and the water was flowing....

"I have made a good earth, my dog," he said. "Walk fast, my dog." Acorns were on the trees. The chestnuts were ripe. The hazelnuts were ripe. The manzanita berries were getting white. All sorts of food had become good. The buckeyes were good. The peppernuts were black. The bunch grass was ripe. The grass-hoppers were growing. The clover was in bloom. The bear-clover was good. The mountains had grown. The rocks had grown. All kinds that are eaten had become good. "We made it good, my dog," he said. Fish for the people to eat had grown in the streams.

"We have come to the south now," he said. All the different kinds were matured. They started back, he and his dog. "We will go back," he said. "The mountains have grown up quickly. The land has become flat. The trout have grown. Good water is flowing. Walk fast. All things have become good. We have made them good, my dog. It is warm. The land is good.

"... We are about to arrive. We are close to home, my dog," he said. "I am about to get back north," he said to himself. "I am about to get back north. I am about to get back north. I am about to get back north," he said to himself.

That is all.



Fall River Valley

Grampa Ramsey and the Great Canyon

Darryl Babe Wilson (b. 1939) was born at the confluence of Fall River and Pit River at Fall River Mills in northeastern California, "into two people": Atsuge-wi on his father's side and A-juma-wi on his mother's. He graduated from the University of California at Davis in 1992 with a major in English, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1997. He has spent his life preserving the oral tradition through his speaking and writing. His essays, poetry, and short fiction have appeared in numerous anthologies. This creation story first appeared in the quarterly News from Native California.

It was a summer before I kept track of time. In our decrepit automobile, we rattled into the driveway, a cloud of exhaust fumes, dust, and screaming, excited children. A half dozen ragged kids and an old black dog poured from the ancient vehicle. Confusion reigned supreme. Uncle Ramsey (after we became parents, his official title changed to "Grampa") was standing in the door of the comfortable little pine-board home just east of McArthur. Aunt Lorena was in her immaculate kitchen making coffee.

Just as quickly as we poured from the vehicle, we disappeared. There was a pervading silence. Always the crystal bowl rested on Aunt Lorena's kitchen table. Usually it held exotic, distant, tasty objects: oranges, bananas, store-bought candy! There seemed to be three hundred black, shiny eyes staring at the contents of that bowl, but we knew that we must wait for Aunt Lorena to say "when" before we could have the contents—which we instantly devoured.

I cannot remember if we had any cares. It was before I began the first grade. I didn't care if I had shoes or clothes. I didn't care about anything—except not to allow my brothers and sisters to have something that I couldn't. And when I did not know that they got something more than me, it didn't matter, really.

It seems that my "thoughts" were already focused upon some other objective. I listened to the old people. I remembered what they said, the tone of their voice, the waving of the hands. My mind registered the long silences between their choppy sentences and between their quiet words.

They spoke in our languages, A-Juma-wi and Opore-gee, and they used a very crude and stumbling English. The English words were strange. I preferred the "old language." As our lives moved into the world of the English speakers and our "old" language became less and less important and less and less used, something within the old people hesitated.

His employment as a "cowboy" came to an end when a shying horse threw him and he landed on his neck, nearly breaking it. After his days in the saddle faded, he worked on various ranches in the Fall River Valley until his retirement.

He spoke to us in Opore-gee (Dixie Valley language), giggling when the twins would say the words correctly after he explained them. We would have to go visit him many times before he would tell us a "real, not fake," story of our people and our history. During these times I took notes because a tape recorder "spooked" him; it mattered little what he was trying to say, the "ghost" inside the tape recorder affected him—he was occupied with the "ghost" instead of the lesson.

Close to the time of his "departure," he spoke of being "so old that I no longer think about the end, but think about the beginning again."

As a silent, powerful, unseen ship passing into an endless sea in the darkness, he moved into the spirit world to join his wife and others of our shattered little nation. He departed during the full moon of October 1986. Aunt Lorena preceded him by sixteen years.

Discard the rules of English kings and queens. Suspend logic. Grampa speaks as he learned to around campfires and in a distance so long ago that he claimed, "I didn't have enough good sense to listen good."

Grandfather's story:


[This canyon is between Fall River Mills and Barn, California, on the Pit River. Grandfather interchanges the names Qon and Silver-gray Fox occasionally. They are the same being in his thought.]

Qon [Silver-gray Fox] worked to make the world from a mist and a song long ago. He and Makada [Coyote] set to making things on earth. Makada was constantly trying to change things. Qon had the power to create. Makada had the power only to change things. He was always jealous because he could not create—he could only change. Qon created things. Makada always tried to change them. Qon persisted. Makada insisted. Sometimes he made a go of it. Sometimes Makada got his way. He sure was insistent, that Makada. [Smile, twinkle, and gruff giggle.]

His was the time when Qon put his place, his home—maybe you say "office"—on the Pit River/Hat Creek rim near Hogback [a small mountain]. From that place he could watch everything. This was before there was a Great Canyon, so Da-we-wewe and It-Ajuma [streams, including the Fall River and Pit River] could make it to the ocean, so salmon could come up there. Fall River and Dixie Valley are the valley drainage.

It [the office] was like an umbrella that you can look through but you could not see it—like a bubble or something but you can't see him [it]. When it rained, it did not rain in there. When it snowed, snow could not get in. Wind must go around. Storms and lightning bounced off. I don't know just how to say—as if an arch. Like a thinking or a thought or something.

I dunno. You couldn't touch it or see it. Anyhow, it was there so the Power could watch. Qon wanted everything just right. He knew he had to watch old Makada. It was bad. Qon needed help from Makada. Makada was insistent.

Qon molded earth like wa-hach [a form of bread made in an iron skillet without grease], flattened here, raised there. Everywhere not the same. It was when Chum-see-akoo was being made [the small area where the Hat Creek and Pit River come together and create a small peninsula in a shape like Argentina; Highway 299 East now runs through it]. Some call it Ya-nee-na. It was made. Qon wanted to name it. Makada wanted to name it. They talked. They argued.

Qon said, "Let's make some other things and get back to this place." So they did. They roamed and made a-hew [mountains] and da-wi-wiwi [streams] and a-ju-juji [springs]. Qon named these places. They returned to Chum-see-akoo/Ya-nee-na. Makada said, "You, brother, have named all of these other places. It is my turn to name this place right here." [A gruff giggle from Grandfather because Coyote called Silver-gray Fox "brother."]

Qon said, "No, you will call it by any name but a real name. Sometimes when you talk you don't make much sense. Let's go and make some more."

So they did. [Silver-gray Fox was in the process of making the Pit River Country into a livable place.]

Watching from a high bluff, Qon saw the insistence of Makada. He waited. Meanwhile, he forgot to make a place for the Pit River to run and drain the upper valley. He forgot to make a canyon. There was a mountain of solid rock. No canyon.

They returned to the small valley. Again they got in an argument. This time Qon give in. He give up. He got tired of arguments.

Makada called it Chum-see Akoo [Mice Valley] because he liked to eat mice. He really liked the taste of fresh mice. Today that is what we call it. Mice Valley. But what about the canyon that was filled with solid rock? The Pit River cannot run through it. The salmon must come so people can eat.

Qon looked and saw a wide spot below rock mountain. Rock mountain must be made into a canyon for Pit River. He spoke to big bass-sturgeon. "You must do this so river can run to the ocean." Sturgeon said, "Okay, but I am not strong enough to break that mountain." Qon said, 'Tomorrow I shall tell you what to do, after I think." Why did Qon have to think? I dunno.

Next day Qon said, "Go to the top of mountain [Mount Shasta] and get power." He went, then he swam back from mountain. He got back and took a run at it and hit it [the rock mountain] with his head. BANG! Again and again, BANG! It hurt. He got tired, and it hurt. Qon said, "Go back to the mountain for more power."

Meanwhile Makada was off doing something. He could not create. He was changing something. Always changing, Makada.

Sturgeon struck the mountain, BANG! again and again. Again and again. Again he got tired. Again it hurt. He went back to the mountaintop and got some more power. BANG! Old mountain rock he began to break. It got weakness. He cracked it! He got more power in a hurry. He broke it! Rocks were everywhere. Later they found some rocks clear up in Dixie [Valley]. Rocks flying everywhere. He broke through. He did it! He came out to Boma-ree [Fall River Valley].

Qon said, "Good."

Meanwhile, Qon found Makada. He was up at the hot springs cooking quail eggs and looking with his head down seeing himself in the water. [Gruff giggle.] Makada always thought he was real cute.

When they came back, Makada noticed the great canyon. Qon looked at Makada. Makada looked away, with his tongue hanging sideways from his mouth, and said, "I didn't do it [make the canyon]. I was gathering quail eggs to boil in hot springs."

Looking to the rim today, you will see power [the "office"] is gone. Qon and Makada ran east up the canyon that was rushing with water [the Pit River]. There were more things to make. Maybe it was then that people were mad, but that is another story. Not for today.

We left Grampa Ramsey in possession of a "real, not fake," story. At times it seemed as if it was a story about creation in general, but it was, for the most part, a story of the Great Canyon. For this time spent with Grampa we are made richer. Richer in knowledge and understanding. Richer in language and the function of that language. Richer in the spiritual connection that binds us to the earth.


Excerpted from Natural State by Steven Gilbar. Copyright © 1998 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven Gilbar lives in Santa Barbara and does not get to spend as much time in the wilderness as he would like. His previous anthologies include Tales of Santa Barbara (1994) and Red Tiles, Blue Skies (1996).

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